November 17, 1999 1:20 PM PST

Details emerging on secretive start-up Transmeta

More clues about Transmeta, one of the most secretive companies in Silicon Valley, are slowly becoming available, including the name of its first processors.

While details about its first products are still sketchy, the chip company evidently has decided on a name for them: Crusoe. The Crusoe processors will be targeted at mobile applications, according to the company's recently revised Web page.

The secrecy surrounding the company's plans have led to much speculation about the nature of the start-up. But the secrecy is something of a ruse: The company has actually been working hard to promote itself by being just secretive enough to spur interest.

It was formed in 1995 in Santa Clara, California, and is funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, among others. David Ditzel, an architect of early processors at AT&T's Bell Labs, and Linux founder Linus Torvalds are among its principals.

Yesterday at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, Torvalds said in his keynote speech that the company's products would be announced on January 19.

Initially, the company said the chips would be announced by October, but they were apparently delayed, judging by the new launch date.

Torvalds revealed Transmeta is working on a "smart CPU, the first microprocessor built with software" running as an integral component. CPU stands for central processing unit.

Transmeta's employees are starting to demonstrate a sense of humor about its secretiveness. Knowing that Internet surfers have been looking at the source code of its Web page trying to divine secrets about the project--the company's page used to say nothing more than "This Web page is not here yet!"--there is now a new message in place.

"Yes, there is a secret message. Crusoe will be cool hardware and software for mobile applications. Crusoe will be unconventional," it says. Source code is the name for the embedded commands that tell a browser how text and images will appear on a screen.

Other details about the operation of the chip became evident with a look at some key patents the company has received in the past two years.

As first reported by CNET News.com, Transmeta's chip is capable of acting like any number of other chips, including Intel processors, by using a combination of hardware and software to enable it to run Windows-based applications.

But unlike other Intel-compatible chips, Transmeta's Crusoe is expected to be able to translate commands designed for Intel chips to run on its processor without a significant performance hit and, more importantly, without the need to license patented technology from Intel, according to patent experts.

The chips are apparently named after the literary character Robinson Crusoe. That book is about a man who is stranded on a desert island. Transmeta's Web page has an image of a desert island on it.

 

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